In 2009, Linda Parker-Smith, then the owner of a dental consulting company, attended a meeting that changed the course of her life. The meeting was with Collis Huntington—founder of Along Side Ministries, a faith-based organization dedicated to rehabilitating men and women coming out of prison—who asked her to volunteer.
“I saw these people who had a lot of dental problems, and since I had a lot of experience in the dental industry, this really fell heavy on my heart,” says Parker-Smith, who was moved to do something, anything, to help.
“That was when the light bulb went off,” she continues. “I realized I could help give them a smile.”
Parker-Smith returned to Huntington with the idea of forming a nonprofit organization that, through a network of dental professionals and services, would provide free dental care to former prisoners whose teeth have suffered the effects of drugs, poverty and incarceration. Smiles Beyond the Bars was born.
“We tested the waters and the waters were unbelievable. One doctor after another said they wanted to get involved,” says Parker-Smith. “With so many people coming forward wanting to help, I realized it was in my heart to do this. I took the plunge and I’ve never looked back.”
With a network of 60 dentists and dental labs offering free services, Smiles Beyond the Bars is able to provide such procedures as implants, veneers, dentures and even braces in some cases. Since the nonprofit began in 2009, the organization has helped more than 200 recipients, “not one of whom has ever gone back to prison,” says Parker-Smith.
To be considered for the program, clients are required to have been out of prison for at least one year; entered in a sobriety program, if needed; and living a life free of crimes and drugs.
“This is rehabilitation at the highest level,” Parker-Smith says. “Just think about how this works. When you don’t have teeth, you don’t have a job. When you don’t have a job, you don’t have a home, transportation or food. When you don’t have those, you become desperate and resort to doing drugs and committing crimes. The cycle goes on and on.”
According to Parker-Smith, it costs the state of Arizona $38,000 to keep one person in prison per year. By keeping people out of prison, those tax dollars are returned to the community.
“It’s a three-fold plan,” she says. “We’re helping people who deserve a second chance at life, we’re getting families back together, and we’re helping redirect money back into the community.”
To accomplish its plan, Smiles Beyond the Bars relies primarily on funding from private donors. They are also applying for more grants and collaborating with businesses and services that can help support their operational needs. Recently, the organization began a relationship with National Bank of Arizona. The bank has been expanding its services to the nonprofit sector.
“NB|AZ is dedicated to hardworking nonprofits like us,” says Parker-Smith. “I first got to know the bank after I was invited to participate in a focus group about what nonprofits want in a bank. I was so impressed with their genuine interest in what we do and how we operate. They genuinely want to see the little guy grow.”
Looking ahead, Parker-Smith hopes to get enough funding—through donations, grants and fundraising efforts—to add two full-time case managers to their team, which will allow them help more people. They are committed to providing services to 50 new clients this year.
“Just think about what it would like to not have teeth or a smile and be embarrassed to talk to people,” she says. “No one was born wanting to take drugs, steal, commit crimes. These are good people who have gone wrong and just need another shot at life.”
Parker-Smith adds, “If I can leave one legacy of helping someone, I do believe I was born to love and serve people. And in this way, I’m loving and serving.”